Last week, I talked about just what stress actually is. This week, you're going to learn about what stress does to our muscles, tendons, joints, and nerves. I'll list the three most common painful conditions that are caused by stress and provide some information on what you can do about it if you're suffering with those conditions.
First, there's a little bit of background you need to have. Many of us have probably heard about our fight, flight, freeze system. Our nervous system is broken down into three categories.
The autonomic nervous system is the part that is most affected by stress. This system is broken down into two parts, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is what is normally referred to as our fight or flight system and the parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the rest and digest system.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are both always online in your body. However, if you're walking through the woods and a bear jumps out and starts chasing you, your parasympathetic nervous system will dial way down in function, and your sympathetic nervous system will turn way up. The sympathetic nervous system is meant to protect us from danger. However that system is meant to only be on full blast for short periods of time.
Normally, if that bear jumps out in the woods, the sympathetic nervous system shoots up to overdrive, pumps more blood to your muscles so you can run faster, and usually within 5 to 10 minutes - it's over, one way or the other. You either got away from the bear or you didn't, but either way, the system then is meant to go back to normal.
But we sit in traffic stressed to the max for hours at a time.
And during that time our sympathetic nervous system is running continuously.
That's where the problems occur.
Our bodies can function pretty well with increased activation to those muscles for a short period of time. But if it continues day after day in our stressful lives, then it starts to cause problems. It starts to cause pain and tension on both sides of the neck, it can cause shoulder problems due to the fact that this raises the shoulder from its normal resting position and makes it more vulnerable, and it can cause pain in between the shoulder blades from the tension of all those muscles.
2. The second most common musculoskeletal consequence of increased stress is pain in the jaw. It is very common that when people are under stress, they will clench their jaw as a compensatory strategy. This constant tension can create pain in the muscles surrounding the jaw as well as pain in the jaw joint itself.
But clenching the jaw is not only a problem for the jaw itself. The way that the muscles in our head and neck work, when you clench your jaw, you clench your neck. So not only does teeth/jaw clenching lead to pain in the jaw, but it can also lead to neck pain as well as headaches. The type of headaches that it causes are referred to as tension headaches. These headaches are felt at the base of your skull and around the sides of your head.
3. The third most common musculoskeletal issue caused by stress is low back pain. The jaw is not the only area that people clench when they are stressed. There are two other areas that are very common for people to clench during times of stress. These are the abdominal muscles and the gluteal muscles.
Excessive clenching in either of those two areas is known to lead to low back pain. There is a phenomenon in the body called irradiation. This phenomenon basically means that tension breeds tension. An example of this is if you were trying to lift something heavy with your right arm, and it was difficult, you might clench your left fist really tightly in order to build more strength in your right arm. So basically, creating tension in a nearby area increases the tension in that secondary area.
Increased tension in the abdominal muscles leads to increased tension in the low back muscles which will lead to pain. The same thing happens in the gluteal muscles. Our muscles are meant to work all together. When one group becomes dominant and overactive, this causes tension to increase all around that area.
If you're reading this and you are thinking that you can really relate to those three areas that I talked about above, you're probably wondering, "Well, what can I do about it.?"
There are two main things that need to be done for these problems to improve. The first is: you need to develop strategies for managing stress.
None of us can avoid stress. It's just a part of life. However, that doesn't mean that we just say woe is me and do nothing. So that means, if certain times of our life become more stressful than normal, we'll want to find strategies to mitigate the stress. I will talk about some specially helpful strategies in further blogs.
In conjunction with managing your stress, you want to find ways to alleviate the tension in the areas that are bothering you. Below, I will go over great ways to reduce the tension in the three areas I talked about above.
The contract-relax stretch is shown below. This type of stretch involves activating the muscle first and then stretching it. After a muscle has been activated, it's actually more susceptible to stretch.
2. For the inner shoulder blade muscles, I recommend using a lacrosse ball or trigger point ball.
a) For this, you're just going to go stand with your back against a wall. b) Put a lacrosse ball in between your shoulder blade and your spine. c) Then you're just going to move your torso and bend your knees in order to roll the ball all the way into the muscles in between the shoulder blades.
I recommend 60 to 90 seconds on each side of the spine.
For the jaw muscles, there are two main areas that need to be worked on. These are the jaw muscles, and the upper neck muscles. As I said before, clenching can cause both jaw pain and headaches that tend to be at the base of the skull.
a) The first technique is a release of the tension in your jaw muscles. For this one you're going to take your fingers and find your cheekbones and follow your cheekbones back towards your ear. There are two main groups of job muscles that we want to release. One of them is above the cheekbones and the other one is below.
b) So first, we'll start on the ones above the cheekbones and you'll just move your fingers upwards into the area just in front of your ear. You're going to push your hands inwards like you're trying to go into your skull and then kind of drag the tissue up towards the ceiling. This pins the muscle. Then you're going to slowly open your jaw as wide as you can: this will stretch the muscle. The video below shows the release for the muscle that is above your cheekbones. You would just repeat the same technique in the muscles below your cheekbones.
The image below shows the locations of these muscles so you'll want to do multiple passes with your hands since the muscles are pretty large.
3. The last area are the muscles at the base of your skull. These are the muscles most commonly affected when we clench our teeth. And these are the muscles most commonly associated with tension type headaches.
a) To work on these muscles, you're going to want to get either two tennis balls or two lacrosse balls and you're going to tape them together like the photo below. We call this device a peanut. b) What you want to do is to find a semi-hard surface and lie down on your back. c) Take the peanut and place it just below the base of the skull. d) You don't want the balls actually pushing on the bone of the skull - you want them in the fleshy area just below.
I recommend starting off by lying on this for 4 minutes at a time. Every couple of days, increase that by a minute until you get to 8 minutes. I don't recommend lying on it for longer than 8 minutes.
For the tightness that comes from gluteal muscle tension, we want to stretch out our hip muscles. The video below shows one of the best stretches to relieve tension in these areas.
If you are an abdominal gripper and notice tension in your abs daily ,the technique shown in the video below can be extremely helpful. He uses a much larger ball, but I recommend using a lacrosse ball in the same fashion as he shows in the video.
So there you have it. That darn stress really takes a toll on our body! But now you have some tools to fight back. Try these out and stay tuned for next week when I'll talk about stress management strategies.
And if you're dealing with a lot of pain right now and don't have time to wait for some of this stuff to work on your own, be sure to give us a call at 918-300-4084 and we can help you speed up that process of getting out of pain!